Narrative and storytelling in Social Leadership

It’s because stories sit at the heart of how we communicate that i’ve included ‘Narrative‘ as the first dimension of Social Leadership.

Narrative in Social Leadership

When we share stories, we contextualise information, relating it to that which we already know. Stories draw on icons and frames of reference that are highly culturally specific and efficiently share meaning. We use them as part of our sense making activities within communities to establish areas of commonality and reduce risk.

We curate our stories choosing our stance and tone of voice, making them relevant for the audience. When we get it right, it builds our reputation in social spaces and communities, and in the Social Age, this reputation is the foundation of social authority: authority granted by the community.

The NET Model - two layers

The NET Model of Social Leadership in full, showing the three Dimensions and nine Components

It’s a feature of the Social Age that our stories are iterative: constantly edited and refined around a core narrative. Just look at every news site that updates it’s stories on a minute by minute basis. A wiki type approach.

When our leadership stories resonate, they help us to build shared purpose and momentum within both teams and communities (which may be inside or external to the organisation).

Storytelling is a skill like any other: it can be developed over time.

Posted in Leadership, Narrative, Storytelling | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Potential for confusion: expression and intent

Message received is often not message sent: the potential for confusion is significant. In fact, getting your message across is a significant challenge through any channel. I’ve spent the week sharing ideas with a great group of people: we build a shared understanding around a lot of key areas, but i was still amazed when various of us had that moment when we ‘got it‘, when we saw through all the words and found the meaning.

Potential for Confusion

It turns out that volume of words isn’t what drives meaning: it’s clarity and shared understanding. Indeed, confusion often hides behind volume.

Working on the clarity of our stories, on the simplicity of our language, on ensuring our stories resonate with the audience, all of this can help us communicate more effectively.

Communication is an expressive activity, a creative one. We choose how to share stories, using words, print, pictures and sound. We can use music or clay, songs or animations. But underneath is all is the meaning and the desire to share it.

Confusion can come from cultural or environmental factors, but it’s pervasive and constant. Just our desire to share effectively doesn’t guarantee that we will.

It’s worth pausing for thought to see if we are communicating effectively and, if not, how can we encourage those moments of shared understanding, those sense making activities.

The Social Age is played out in communities: communicating effectively is a core skill, one that we can work on.

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Baseball: the ritual of the game

Minneapolis Baseball 1As the sun went down over the Target Centre, Robert and I sat in companionable silence, beer and pizza in hand, watching the game. Next to us, a group of college students, joking and shouting. Behind us a mother with young son. In front, the whole row of seventeen seats taken up by a group of guys from work, the older, grey haired, grizzled ones teasing the apprentice when he got asked for ID.

Downtown Minneapolis sports a new stadium, home of the Twins and typical of every American city in being a meeting place for a wide cross section of society. Old and young, rich and poor. Way up high, a chorus of ‘happy birthday‘ rang out for an eighty five year old lady who’d come to support her team.

The rituals are embedded in the game: we all stand for the National Anthem, the routine of the warm up where white clad hitters swing the bat and stretch muscles before stepping up. Periodically the mascot emerges, a giant bear having his picture taken with young children and screaming gaggles of girls.

Between the action, the roaming cameras pick people out of the crowd to show on the big screen and my latent English reticence makes me shrink lower in my seat as it’s all seeing lens sweeps closer, terrified i’ll be forced to smile and wave whilst waiting for it to pass.

Minneapolis Baseball 2Baseball is a game of statistics: the screens showing batting averages and illustrating the curves hitters take. Discussion, argument and supposition thrive whilst the action plays out to a soundtrack of cheers, jeers and rock songs.

At one stage a stray foul ball smacks into the illuminated sign above our head, causing me to duck and remember the time i got knocked out by a cricket ball: one that i’d batted myself in a freak demonstration of incompetence that sent it sailing high into the air above my head. I still remember the feel of the golf ball shaped lump it left.

The rituals of hot dogs, popcorn and beer sold down the aisles. The semi stylised cries from vendors as their keen eyes sweep the crowds in search of trade and tips.

Maybe a more recent ritual is the airport style security as you enter the stadium: unwelcome perhaps but a sign of the times as the security guard with wary eyes open my sunglass case to be sure i’m not packing any heat.

The uniforms abound: the home team in crisp white whilst the visitors sport grey. Security surround the pitch in crisp polo shorts and black earpieces. Stewards glow yellow. Fans demonstrate a mixed wardrobe of faded and over-washed team colours or the latest strip with favoured players name and number. Two men presenting the live TV broadcast sit framed with the field behind them, they wear sharp grey suites as a curious crowd stare and they give fixed smiles to camera.

The rituals on the field are no less varied: periodically (there may be a routine, but I’m unable to discern it) four men come out towing boards behind them and trace elaborate circles on the red earth to smooth out the surface. I’m struck by the dichotomy of these players earning upwards of a million dollars a year on impeccably manicured surfaces and elsewhere around the country where snotty nosed kids blat their inherited baseball into a worn out glove on a tufted grass pitch. It’s a metaphor for America itself: the gulf between a wealthy elite and disenfranchised and impoverished class in second class housing with no healthcare. We love the spectacle of the carefully curated space, the ironed shirts and mirror flat soil, whilst hiding away from the ghetto.

San Diego baseball

The Padres playing in San Diego

As the game drew to a close, the Twins lagging far behind with a paltry two against Cleveland’s seven, a loyal fan still shouted out “come on boys, we’ve got them right where we want them” as the closing shots were fired in front of a stadium already half empty as the crowd had sensed the early loss of spirit.

The young boy behind me dropped his treasured baseball, relic i suppose from a previous game, and it passed me, bumping down the stepped concrete tiers. I retrieved it for him from amongst the drifts of discarded plastic beer cups, hot dog wrappers and peanut shells. He seemed pleased.

The stadium emptied, disgorging people to car parks and the light rail system, all talk of work tomorrow, plans for the weekend and maybe a ticket to tomorrow nights game in the hope of a better outcome. In the still night air I thought of how it must feel, to hit the home run, the glare of the arc lamps and shouts of the crowd lost to your own breathing and immediacy of the smack as the wood hits the ball, the shock travelling through your arm. An experienced player must know at once when they’ve taken that clean shot.

We live our lives around rituals, from cleaning our teeth to the sunday trip to the coffee shop to read the paper. The rituals of baseball are shared: donning our uniforms, gathering in the hallowed space, following the routine, marshalled by music and the nine segments of the game. Shared experiences for a society which bring cohesion. Rituals unite us.

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Learning to juggle

The last five days have been spent happily in a field, camping with friends, listening to music, being largely out of range of phone signal, with a stash of games and good books. Funny how we celebrate a lack of connectivity when we spend so much time, money and effort to be be connected.


Lacking the ability to squander my time on Facebook or the News, it seemed like the perfect time to learn to juggle.

With balls, that is, not with my time.

No, not chainsaws or knives.

Juggling has a wonderful clarity of purpose: keep all the balls in the air, achieve some level of elegance, don’t drop them. It’s a skill you either have or you don’t. You can’t really ‘half juggle‘. You can either juggle, or you’re learning. Or you’ve given up. As it turns out, most of my friends can juggle, leaving me with an audience of advisors and unprofessional coaches.

It’s an interesting experience learning a new manual skill: one that i found i hadn’t faced for a while. You know, intellectually, what the desired end result is. You also know that you will need to put in hours of practice, dropping the balls, to get there. Being familiar with the cognitive mechanisms doesn’t shortcut them. It apparently takes thirty hours to learn to ride a unicycle, but you have to do the twenty nine hours of failure before you hit the jackpot.

Standing there, in the sunshine, dropping the balls, one after another, again and again, in the vain and simple hope that eventually i’d exhaust my incompetence and it would click was no less frustrating for knowing that it was largely true.

Learning to juggle is not a particularly conscious effort: the principles are fairly simple, the errors obvious. I rapidly identified that, in common with most learners, i tended to throw the balls forward, resulting in my walking progressively further forward to keep pace with the balls. Correcting this by trying to throw more directly up in the air resulted in a crick in my neck and most of the balls landing behind me.

The best advice i received from onlookers: stand facing a wall whilst you learn. It prevents you walking forwards and also means you can’t see the sniggerers, even if you can still hear them.

As you stand there, throwing and dropping the balls, you’re acutely aware that you can’t really influence events.

I assume at some cognitive level i’m rewiring connections, but at the purely conscious one, i’m just repeating my mistakes.

Although somehow, slowly, small patterns emerge. Suddenly i’m dropping the balls less: even though i can’t maintain more than three throws at one (one complete circle of the balls), the circle ends with me holding all three, not having dropped them all. I appear to have got better at catching.

By day three, as i’m starting to despair, out of nowhere i manage to get them round twice, before dropping them in surprise. As i stood watching the balls, i had a somewhat distanced sensation of watching them. I could sense the unconscious movement of my hands, reminding me of the sensation when i learnt to touch type. As rapidly as i sensed this, it kicked back into a conscious activity, and i promptly dropped everything.

As i tried to repeat the experience, my performance deteriorated rapidly (as i became ragged in my technique, hoping luck would take over). I can type very fast, but the minute i consciously think about how i make mistakes. I’m unconsciously competent, but when I reduce it to consciousness, incompetent.

Spurred on by my ability to complete full circles, but in the knowledge I was probably going to reside at this plateau for a while, I continued.

On day four, almost as soon as I started, I suddenly found myself juggling. Without having done anything apparently different, suddenly the balls were going round in front of me and I felt distanced from any conscious association with my hands. Maybe five times around, fifteen or more sequential throws and catches, before my flow was fractured by my increasingly g excitement and engagement with the subconscious processes.

I never repeated that feat on day four but i did manage three full revolutions a few more times. In those brief moments of success, I was consciously aware of my unconscious activity. No part of it was within my immediate control. I’m not clear what precisely changed: is it the skill with which I’m throwing the balls, my ability to precisely position them, or my improved ability to catch? Certainly some of the former: by inference, tidy juggling (by which I mean that which doesn’t involve me running around chasing the balls) must involve correct placement of each ball, so I guess I managed that. Maybe it’s also the consistency with which I am able to do it, or perhaps the ability to iron out wrinkles in the system: when a ball goes slightly out of place I can bring it back into line better.

Maybe subconsciously it’s a combination of perfecting a core movement whilst also having a range of better rehearsed emergency techniques when things deviate?

So can I juggle? Well, I guess I can say that I have: but I’m certainly unable to repeat it on demand, which means I’m still learning. And it means that whilst today I’m flying to America for work, tucked away in my bag, blades of sun parched grass stuck to them, are three juggling balls waiting for the next practice.

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Creating Spaces: a framework for devolved creativity

The Social Age requires agility, from both organisations and individuals. It’s a time of constant change and what we did yesterday may not work again tomorrow because the ecosystem is evolving around us. When Henry Ford gave us the production line and Six Sigma optimised it, we thought that the challenge was to do things efficiently, to replicate and copy, to streamline and unify. Whilst there’s still a place for that, we may be missing a trick: the ragged edges of innovation and creativity are the antithesis of order, but may be what we need to be agile.

Devolved Creativity

Optimisation was about control: every microscopic detail of placement and order. Agility is about community, about ‘sense making‘, about uninhibited curiosity, social reputation and the ability to share stories widely. Agility is about innovation, not replication.

Formal organisational hierarchy is a manifestation of control: to be agile, we have to create spaces for experimentation. The role of leadership becomes less about setting direction, more about facilitating co-creation.

Formal hierarchy already gives us the spaces for creativity: we call them teams, projects and meetings. What’s needed is permission: a co-created set of rules and a framework for action. We have to understand what’s safe, what the consequences are of thinking differently, what the rewards are for success.

But the curiosity we require for agility isn’t limited to the physical spaces of work or the formal structures that define the hierarchy: in the Social Age, we inhabit a virtual network of communities and spaces that are all our own. Our ability to create meaning, to be effective, happens within and alongside these communities.

In an agile organisation, leadership creates (and co-creates) permission to think differently: the story of change is then co-owned at every level. We use technology and an understanding of rules to create space for devolved creativity.

Creativity may be internally or externally moderated: internally moderated creativity is that which happens inside our heads, it’s unconstrained, whilst externally moderated creativity may be within a framework and within communities. It’s this latter type of creativity that we may most easily unleash within organisational spaces.

I’m working on a full curriculum of skills around this, but in the meantime, here’s a framework.

Devolved Creativity Model

Under an externally moderated model of creativity, we can establish the community and put frames around our thinking. Within those frames, we explore potential, ideas are tested and assessed within the community and iterated forward. At each stage, the creative process is narrated, both individually, within the community and out to the organisation. It’s this narrative that provides the legacy.

Framing does constrain creativity, but it also provides realistic space and permission. Frames may be around time, around budget, around technology or around legal and ethical frameworks. For example, we may devolve creativity to a team, but do so with an attached timeframe and budget requirement. Or we may set them the task to establish specific data points that can link into business metrics or other projects.

Instead of giving them instructions on what they should do, we are creating a framework that they should work within. It’s a small but significant different. There is no process at play here, no system to determine action: the momentum will be generated within the community and the ground rules are up for grabs.

The devolution of this type of externally moderated creativity ties into notions of social capital and reputation: anyone, irrespective of their formal role within the hierarchy, can develop social reputation and exert social authority within these creative spaces.

Whilst process and formulae tend to cement our position and permission within a structure, a creative space allows us to curate our own presence according to our ability to add value. Within a truly devolved creative space, that should include permission to withdraw from the space if we feel we can add no value (although if we explore the roles we can take within a community, it’s unlikely there’s none we could fulfil).

The frames don’t need to be tight: it’s perfectly possible to iterate from very loose frames to very tight ones: as long as we provide a narrative from each, we can compare the outputs at each stage and see what we are ruling out. Again, this approach differs from traditional hierarchical approaches, which still miss out the good stuff, but do so unconsciously.

Similarly, the loose frames should not just take place at the top of the organisation (on the assumption that creativity and strategy can only cascade down), but rather should be co-created by framing them at all levels or, even better, creating a community that stands outside formal hierarchy but includes and welcomes people from each level. These may be self selecting or defined: again, we are able to challenge assumptions about resource deployment by allowing people to self select and deploy where they feel they can add value.

That’s a far more effective approach than just assuming someone’s time is where the value is added: it’s not. It’s about how effective they are, and that may not be a function of seniority or time.

The exploration we do within these frames may be considered the most traditionally ‘creative’ aspect. Most likely, it’s facilitated by the technologies we use, the technologies that draw us together and let us share ideas effectively. But the technology itself is incidental to the permissions: clarity around rules, permanence and consequence.

In the digital realm, we are used to permanence, but not necessarily to evolving consequence: what is permissible within a context today may be unwelcome tomorrow. When we ask people to engage in creative activities, they are exposing their evolving thought processes to scrutiny: it’s all well and good doing that in a safe and permissive environment, but in a years time, when there’s a round of redundancies coming, are you still comfortable with those weaknesses you expressed?

Exploration is iterative: we are looking to facilitate (within our frames) the expression, rehearsal and reworking of multiple ideas. Each one tested and assessed by the community to create data points for review and comparison.

The key to this stage is uninhibited curiosity: it’s not about following the process for how it was done last time. It’s about finding out how best to do it this time. If all other parameters are the same, it’s possible that the way we did it before will work just as well, but we have to question. Everything. Agility is about questioning and then questioning again and, once we have answers we are satisfied with, we add layers of context and interpretation and share our narratives, share our stories.

Levels of Narrative

When we are exploring and testing our ideas, we need to quantify the change that we see. Encouraging quantification in what may feel like a qualitative field of creativity may seem counter intuitive, but remember that externally moderated creativity is not a soft alternative to scientific or process driven methodologies. It’s intended to make us more effective by being better adapted to our environment, so we have to measure. Measuring is not the enemy of creativity: it’s what validates it.

The determination of suitability is the test we apply to outcomes: what have we done differently, what was our thought process, what options did we pursue and which did we abandon. And why? The narrative of our curiosity is valuable both within our own learning process but also for others as they seek to replicate or innovate within their own space.

Narrative is about crafting a story of success and failure, analysing it to the best of our individual and group capability and sharing it. The cumulative effect of this analysis, narrative and sharing is learning. We individually learn how the creative process allowed us to achieve different outcomes through different efforts: we build our mental schema and toolkit to do it again next time, differently. Within groups it builds momentum and alignment around shared learning and shared success. For organisations, it build a validation of approach and tribal knowledge that is highly accessible and durable.

This is an outline framework for devolved creativity within organisations: there’s more depth to build into it, but i’m #WorkingOutLoud and sharing it as it evolves.

Organisations that are able to unleash creativity, that are able to create permission to think differently will be left with one final challenge: to reward agility.

As it’s often a factor of semi social communities, semi formal spaces, we have to pioneer ways to reflect social authority and reputation, forged through our actions within these communities, back into formal organisational performance management and reporting structures. We have to do this to ensure we call out and recognise excellence and give kudos to individuals and teams.

In the Social Age, this reputation is currency and if we are able, as an organisation, to recognise and reward it, it will strengthen both trust and durability of the relationship with the team.

Unlocking creativity, devolving it within frameworks, this is what makes an organisation agile, fit for the Social Age.

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Radical Change: engaging communities

It doesn’t have to be ‘them and us‘. With the right type of engagement, it can be ‘us‘ all around. I’m seeing increased interest in the power of socially moderated and driven change models: harnessing the power of community to co-create and co-own the change.

Sustained Subversion

Call it ‘sanctioned subversion‘. It allows a little of the anarchic into the formal organisational space. Creating communities of change who both shape the ideas and take responsibility for execution: recognising that change itself isn’t hard, it’s engagement and momentum that count.

The NHS Healthcare Radicals model is one of the strongest i’ve seen: an officially sanctioned community for change couched in fully social terms. The very language is social and provocative: you study to become a ‘radical‘, not a graduate. It’s a deliberate choice of words: it provides permission to think differently and to align yourself with dramatic change. Radicals don’t do things by halves.

NHS Change day, which occurs in different healthcare systems globally now, is a focal point for change, but the Radicals have a wider remit than one day a year: the movement creates an impetus for introspection (of both ourselves and the systems we inhabit) and provokes momentum.

Momentum is one of the hardest aspects of change: you can easily create disturbance, but like ripples on the water, it soon fades away. True change requires momentum over time, and that can only be generated from within the community, not input from outside. It’s socially created and socially moderated, so almost by definition, it requires engagement from the community. The Healthcare Radicals model achieves this by recognising and amplifying individual momentum. By creating transparency, it builds individual reputation as well as the reputation of the change idea itself.

Crucially, it’s change within a framework, but without a set agenda. It’s a methodology with a devolved roadmap. Change is desired and required, but the micro details of the change are defined and owned by the community, which makes sense because it’s the community that holds the best knowledge at this level and which ultimately has to make the change happen.

The role of the organisation is not necessarily to define the change (although it may define the parameters, such as cost or efficiency). The role of the organisation in a socially moderated change model is to facilitate the change.

We all have our reputation within communities: it’s forged on our behaviour and actions over time. Any formal system that recognises social reputation is onto a winner: it means we are rewarding people for the value they add as recognised by the community itself.

In a social model, the challenge for the organisation is to grant permission to think differently: create the space for disturbance, not the disturbance itself.

I’m starting to evolve a model for this type of social change: think of it as finding the keys to unlock momentum within the organisation.

Social Change Model - four keys

We can view four keys for change, each facilitated by a catalyst

I’m focussing on four key dimensions: permission, pathways, reinforcement and recognition. Within each are key catalysts: amplification, mechanism, narrative and reward.

Permission is about creating space to think differently: amplification enables this by providing social reinforcement and volume to good ideas.

Pathway is about channeling individually created momentum into aligned community efforts. It’s about facilitating technologies and appropriate models of moderation and control. It’s easy to kill change at this stage if we get it wrong.

Reinforcement is where we start to put organisational muscle behind socially created and moderated change. It’s where the amplification really starts to bite and where the roadmap emerges. At this stage, it’s all about stories and narrative.

Recognition means calling out success as well as failure: it’s driven out of storytelling and personal narratives of change. It also includes reward, but recognising that money may not be the primary driver: reputation counts in the Social Age.

Change is not about pushing from the top down: partly because whilst the view from the top is great, it misses the granularity of detail from the floor, but also because true change has to be co-created and co-owned.

Don’t mistake co-ownership for diluted change: think of it as more effective. You still get your say, but you benefit from the wisdom of the community. If we think there is no wisdom in the community, we’re reverting to a ‘them and us‘ mindset, where we ‘do‘ change to people. That’s ok, if you’re ok alienating your community. And bearing in mind that ‘community‘ sits at the heart of the Social Age, that may not be so smart.

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For the love of books

Despite the rush as i left the house, i still found time to dash back upstairs to grab a book. But which to take? Two sat on my desk: Clark Quinn’s new book on ‘innovation‘ or Slash’s biography? Now, Clark’s a cool guy, and his book has a cool cover, but i have to admit Slash won out. It was going to be a long train journey and i can’t bear to be away from home without a book. The allure of debauched rock ‘n’ roll was irresistible in the end.

For the Love of Books

Of course, in the event i didn’t read a page, opting instead to write on the iPad, but i still felt better for it being there.

I do, like the rest of you no doubt, have a hundred digital books on the iPad, unread and largely a response to my inherent guilt at not having read more Hemingway as a student. I am reassured by it’s very presence in the iBookstore, although i detest reading books on the device.

When it comes to reading books, i’m very much a luddite, as my home reflects: creaking shelves bear testament to four decades of inveterate and impulsive purchases. At last count, i reckon i’ve read about half, but it’s ok because i’m a better person by osmosis through cohabiting with the rest.

Our relationship with books is evolving, both individually and as a society: contrary to received wisdom, they have stubbornly refused to die. The format of the physical book has a distinct appeal: it’s both comforting and comfortable, something that eludes my iPad, no matter how much i love it. I could of course buy a Kindle: it’s not as though i’m shy of technology, but i suspect the weight of yet another charger to carry around may prove the final straw and, when it comes to it, Slash doesn’t run out of battery.

The location of stories

As well as their physical format, books are a conceptual framework, a structure we write within that captures a coherent story. Endlessly scrollable web pages are all well and good, but most devices maintain the illusion of the printed and numbered page, even though they don’t need to. It’s just something embedded in our mindset: ‘turning another page‘, ‘starting a new chapter‘, ‘closing the book‘. They’ve permeated our language and culture and shaped how we structure knowledge and stories.

Aside from occasionally actually reading them, we do a lot with books: we share them as tokens of respect, love and reinforcement. We write messages in them or use them to prop up our laptops. We love them for themselves, displaying them in pride of place, in long rows, on dusty shelves or, in the case of my friend Emma, colour coordinated through two sides of the lounge. I admire the organisation, even if my own taxonomy is based less on hue, more on chronology and heft.

Occasionally, we write them.

I used to keep them pristine but a joy of adulthood was learning it was ok for me to annotate them, to fill the margins with my spidery scrawls, circle and underline, but never to neon highlight: some things are a step too far. That was about the extent of my rebellion. Slash would not approve.

We collect books, using them to curate our space, to define the parameters of our curiosity: we use them to boast subliminally about our academic and literary prowess. Have you really read Cloud Atlas? My copy is as untouched as the day my mother gave it to me. I did survive the film though.

Books are reflective: whilst so much of the media at our fingertips and in our pockets is cursory and immediate, the processes of writing and reading a book require a certain commitment, a certain dedication.

Some books tell us what to do: gardening, cooking, yoga or home improvement. For some, their religious texts. They are authoritative and didactic, disciplinary and coercive. Others are wonderfully abstract and self indulgent, creative in both content and structure, even in the materials they are made of.

The books we buy, the books we share, these are part of the social structures that tie us together, forging bonds and establishing commonality in thought and deed. Books serve a unifying function in our societies (although they can also be agents of change, subversive and secretive stories, handed under the table and scanned under the sheets at night).

Unlike a webpage, a book is a snapshot in time: it’s what the author thought when they wrote it, when they typed the last full stop. Period. It almost certainly doesn’t reflect exactly what they think now (just as so many of my own books reflect my studies and interests in the past: the fossilised strata of my own growth and thinking).

Books are beautiful, and whilst i celebrate and delight in the opportunities to write and share through digital and social channels, there’s nothing quite like a good book to make the world a better place.

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